So you want to know about screenwriting

by Alex

I know, I know, it’s the dog days of summer and I’m sure – I hope! – everyone is at the beach this weekend.

But JT has been after me to do this column for ages and I just happen to have gotten a lot of e mail and MySpace questions on screenwriting lately and, always one to go with the flow, I thought I’d at least start this discussion, and maybe make it a two-parter, so that people can come back (from the beach) next week with all their questions.

And maybe RGB will be inspired to do his own column with his perspective, and Toni will jump in with hers, and maybe we can even entice Guyot back to share some of his experience as well.

First, a brief background (and of course you can read more in depth at my website.). Before I sold THE HARROWING, I worked steadily as a screenwriter for ten years. I had a pretty typical screenwriting career, actually – I worked for every major studio (except Universal, for some reason) and some independent production companies, I sold original scripts and got hired on assignment to do novel adaptations, I made a good living, and in all that time I had one movie made (depending on who you talk to, it’s estimated that somewhere around 400 scripts are bought or commissioned for every one that gets made. Not good odds.) Which is the second reason I started writing novels. The first reason is that I’m passionate about my work and not only was I sick to death of having things I wrote not made – I was sick to death of having things I wrote butchered – and THEN not made. I was sick to death of seeing other people’s great scripts butchered, too, but that’s another column. I’ll try to keep this one in focus.

For the purposes of this column, I’m going to be talking primarily about feature screenwriting, although I will mention television writing as well. (And I’m talking specifically about Hollywood feature screenwriting, not independent feature screenwriting, which is a completely different animal.) Feature writing and television writing are structured very differently, but what I want to point out right up front is that in television, writers have the power (not at first, but once you get into the higher ranks). In features, directors have the power and writers most assuredly do not.

We’ll get back to that, though.

I’ll start with the first thing you need to know about screenwriting, and the biggest misconceptions I find people have about it.

IT’S A JOB.

Authors – and aspiring screenwriters – rarely seem to know this about screen work. It’s a job in a way that writing novels just isn’t. Employers (studios, producers) are looking for writers who are committed to doing the screen thing as a living, full time (double full time, is often the real case). They don’t want to just buy your fabulous spec (meaning original script), pay you big money and never hear from you again. The chances are infinitesimal that they’ll ever make your movie at all. Your script is just a sample to show that you can write the movie THEY want to make, which they will dictate to you, and which probably won’t make a whole lot of dramatic sense, but they’re paying you to do it.

So, speaking now to authors who are thinking of toying with screenwriting – unless you’re willing to move to LA (and it has to be LA, unless you want to do independent film, which pays even less than novels!) – and really go for it, it’s probably not what you want to be doing. A lot of your time as a working screenwriter is taken up trying to GET jobs, and that in the end was the most frustrating thing to me – how much wasted time and writing was going on with nothing to show for it. Except, of course, I was making a living.

For the vast majority of novelists, it’s a much more viable idea to work on optioning your novels and getting some money from Hollywood without having to pursue a screenwriting career. On the other hand, if you’re fairly young and film or television is your passion, and you want to make a living exclusively at writing, it’s a really viable job. You can get paid for writing, you can support a family, you can work in a glamorous business with wildly talented people (and a lot of jerks, too, but truly, a lot of brilliantly talented people) and once in a while you can get something done.

Another thing novelists never seem to know about screenwriting is that screenwriters are union workers. Working screenwriters belong to the Writers Guild of America – WGA – East or West, depending on which side of the Mississippi you live on. The WGA is a federal labor union and handles collective bargaining for screen, TV, game and news writers. The WGA has negotiated, through long activism, a very good MBA, minimum basic agreement, which ensures that WGA members get paid certain minimums for their work, including pension and health benefits. That’s why screen and television writers are paid so much more than novelists, on average.

But what, you ask, is the catch?

Yes, there is a huge catch. We got the contract, and salary minimums and benefits – but in order to do that, we gave up copyright. When studios buy your script, they buy your copyright. It’s their project. And from then on, you are an employee, and you can be fired off your own script at any time, for any reason or no reason, but the reason is almost always the same – the studio/producers will want a bigger writer on the project. In fact, they will want a whole series of bigger writers on the project, the more the better, somehow – it’s not unusual for two or three dozen writers to work on a single project (although only three writers or teams of writers are ever allowed to be credited on any one movie) and that, in a nutshell, is why movies are so bad these days. And that’s another column, too.

But I’m sure you’re not here to read about collective bargaining (even though it’s kind of crucial). I’d like to say, though, that I’ve not just been a working screenwriter – I’ve also been tremendously active in the WGA, including a 2 year term on the Board of Directors, and administering a private message board for WGA members only. So when I speak in sweeping terms about what makes a screenwriting career, I’m not just speaking about how I did it, personally – I actually have had a ringside seat from which I see very specifically who does break in to the business and how they break in and how they sustain their careers.

Now, on to what you really want to know, what everyone wants to know:

HOW DO I BREAK IN?

The way you break in is: write a great script (and having a male lead doesn’t hurt), get a great film agent and have that agent market your script as a weekend read and hopefully get into a bidding war. I’ll get into more details later, but that’s the process in a nutshell. Chances are you won’t sell that script, especially because the spec market has been depressed for years (although RIGHT now is a good time to sell a script – more on that later, too).

But whether or not you sell the script, if it’s good, even if all the studios and financing companies pass (and there are only about 10 real sources of money in Hollywood at any given time), you will be flavor of the month and they will want to meet you and you will then go through a couple dozen meet-and-greet meetings in which execs and producers will tell you the projects they’re trying to get going and you can potentially get an assignment out of that – or you can work harder and go in with a pitch of your own that you might sell and be hired to write.

That is how the vast majority of screenwriters get started. That is precisely how I got started – great script (I thought!) got me great agent who sold it to Fox in a bidding war. Script never got made, but I was “in”. I got an assignment off that, and kept getting from there.

So, next question.

HOW DO YOU GET A FILM AGENT?

This is how I got my film agent. This is how most screenwriters I know (and I know a lot) got their film agents.

First, they lived in Los Angeles.

Second, they worked as story analysts, or readers, for a studio or agency or production company. A story analyst reads scripts and books that are submitted to companies for consideration for film or TV development, and writes “coverage” – a 2-10 page synopsis of the book or script (depending on the company’s requirements) and a one-page evaluation of the material’s potential as a film, complete with a grid that scores the script in terms of character development, story, dialogue, action, and other narrative elements.

People get those jobs by living in Los Angeles, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who works in the business.

I didn’t get my first job as a reader by throwing rocks at my neighbors, but I did get the job through a neighbor who was working as a reader herself and had too much work to handle. I ghosted some of her scripts, and when a reading job came up at her company she recommended me, and I got the job – it was that easy.

Working as a reader is tremendous training for screenwriting because you learn the format, you learn what works and what doesn’t, you learn how the business really operates from a writing point of view, and you learn who the agents are, out there.

When I was a reader I kept file cards on every single script that came in to my company and every single agent who submitted. So when I had my great script finished, I knew exactly which agents I wanted to approach. I made a list and cold-called those agents, and explained that I was a reader at this company and I’d read these scripts of the agent’s by these clients and I had a script that I thought that agent would respond to.

Every single one of the agents but one said to send the script. I got multiple offers of representation and picked the best one of the bunch, and he sold that script to Fox.

BUT WHAT IF I DON’T LIVE IN LOS ANGELES?

Well, as I said above, if you’re not willing to move to Los Angeles, you’re probably not going to have a career as a screenwriter. It happens, but rarely. At least in the beginning, you have to actually be there.

But – there is a tried and true way to get an agent and break into the business if you don’t live in Los Angeles. You will still have to move to Los Angeles to sustain your career, but you can take this road to break in without actually moving yet.

THE CONTESTS:

There are some established screenwriting contests and fellowships that have launched many a writing career. There are a million writing contests out there and most of them will not help you to a screenwriting career at all. But the following contests have consistently gotten the winners and placers good agents, writing assignments, or TV staff jobs:

The Nicholl Fellowship – the most prestigious and best breakthough screenwriting contest out there. Many pros say it’s about the only contest that can lead to a professional career. http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/index.html

– The Disney Fellowship and Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship – winners get an actual job and hands-on training. The Nick Fellowship grooms writers to work on one of their shows.

– The Warner Bros Drama Writers Workshop and Comedy Writers Workshop – a fast-track way into TV staffing. You write your hour spec and submit. They get about 600 scripts a year; they pick 25 to interview, and choose 13 for the program. You write a second spec under their supervision, and they get you interviews with current CW network and studio projects. About half of any given class gets hired on staff out of the program. Being in the program can get you a good agent if you don’t have one.

– For University of California students and alumni, the Goldwyn Award is also major. There is huge industry competition for the first-place winner, and the Goldwyns heavily promote the winners. Just about every winner becomes a WGA member and is working in the industry within a year of winning.

– TVwriter.com and WriteSafe contests: I know winners of these contests who have gone on to industry jobs. TVwriter.com is also just an excellent resource and community for aspiring TV writers. The film equivalent is Wordplay – Wordplayer.com – about which more next week.

AND JUST ONE MORE NOTE ABOUT BREAKING IN…

… because even though I’ve not even scratched the surface of this subject, I think I’d better let some of this stuff absorb and pick it up again next week. But since I’m on the subject of breaking in, I might as well say this.

It’s a hard time to be breaking in to screenwriting because, as I said the spec market has been dismal for quite a while, and also the WGA contract with the studios expires in October and we are very possibly going to have to strike. But that means – if you have a great script, RIGHT NOW is a very good time to get it out there, because the rumor is studios are starting to stockpile (meaning buying scripts to tide them over if there is a writers’ strike). But then starting in November, the town might shut down.

However, if there is a strike, the few months right after the conclusion of a strike has always been the very best spec market, with the very best prices paid. So IF the pattern holds, if you can write yourself a spec script and plan to take it out right after the strike, lockout, or whatever the hell happens, you are in a really good position to sell/break in. (See, I told you collective bargaining was important!).

I hope some of this has been helpful. Please feel free to deluge me with questions. The ones I don’t answer today I’ll address next Saturday, and the Saturday after that if it’s warranted, and I hope our other Rati screenwriters and others out there will jump in with their experiences as well.

Next week I’ll also talk about the craft of screenwriting.

And now – everyone get to the beach.

26 thoughts on “So you want to know about screenwriting

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Dave. I really don’t know of any reputable web listing of film agents, which doesn’t mean that there isn’t one, just that I’ve never heard of one.

    The most comprehensive listing of film agents is the Hollywood Representation Directory (through Hollywood Creative Directory) – information here:

    http://shop.hcdonline.com/merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=HCDHRD&Category_Code=Specials

    And if there’s a particular agent or agency you’d like to know about, always feel free to e mail me and I can post a query on WriterAction, the screenwriters’ website (for WGA members only).

    Reply
  2. jt ellison

    alex, thank you!!! this is fascinating. i thought it took a while to learn the novel publishing side of things…

    i hope this tutorial will cover your fantastic ideas on how writers and screenwriters can match up for options. after realizing that writing my own screenplay isn’t in the cards now, i am particularly interested in how the studios and screenwriters go about options for novel adaptations.

    i’ve missed y’all. typing leftie and getting better daily!!!

    Reply
  3. Rob Gregory Browne

    Great post, Alex. Reminded me of why I’m so happy to be writing books now.

    I’ve always wondered. Who were the genuises who gave up copyright? I think the WGA has done a few great things, but that one was a truly boneheaded move. Imagine a world where the screenwriter controls the property…

    As for breaking in, the Nicholl did wonders for me. But it’s STAYING in that counts. That constant search for work that you speak of is by far the hardest part.

    Even if you’re young and hot (writing-wise, that is), the fire only burns for so long. Like actors, few screenwriters have a lifelong career.

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT – missed you too, babe! I’m sure you’re ready to kill people by now – not being able to use a limb is beyond frustrating. Glad you’re healing.

    The loss of copyright is a long, long story, Rob, but the villain of the saga is none other than Thomas Edison, who went to the courts and convinced them that filmmaking was not art, but pornography, thus not worthy of copyright protections.

    Not that he had any COMMERCIAL stake in retaining copyright. Right…

    MF, you couldn’t be more right – screenwriting is a great fantasy. Writing novels is a MUCH better reality, IMHO.

    Reply
  5. Naomi

    Hello, Alex–

    Yes, I second J.T.’s request for info about options. My question would be: should you never consider an option for close to no money, such as an offer from a film student or small independent filmmaker? What if this student/filmmaker produces work that you respect and enjoy? You don’t have to answer this week.

    Reply
  6. toni mcgee causey

    Alex, you’re absolutely right about having to live there. I broke in from outside of the area, had scripts go to the top of studios, had dozens and dozens of meetings, minor options, had people want to work with me… only for that to start falling apart when they realized I lived half-way across the country. I had producers who became friends who lobbied hard for me to move–they dangled assignments, potential work–if I’d just move. The problem was, I was too aware of the fact that as easily as I could be hired, a studio could turn around and fire me later, and that was not worth ripping up my family for a maybe.

    The aspect of living there can’t be overemphasized. When I’d go and stay for a couple of weeks at a time, I’d be invited to various cocktail parties or lunches where I ended up making important contacts. I had a couple of producers determined to mentor me and introduce me to their friends at the studio, and I just didn’t realize at the time that it was this part of the game that was the most coveted, and the most important. A large majority of assignments come not just because they like your writing, but because they like you–they feel like they can communicate with you, you’ll be interesting to be around for months at a time, you’re not difficult to work with, etc., and a lot of that is discovered through casual interactions. Friends of mine who are now showrunners for a hit CBS show met the very people they’re doing the show for now when they went to a cocktail party. It wasn’t their agent who started that (we had the same agent)–it was them, developing a relationship (a real friendship, not just shallow connections) with other people in the business. (Of course, plenty of shallow connections have worked for people as well.)

    It’s a lucrative business. Unfortunately, it’s way more business-focused than even novel writing.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    God, Alex, it seems like a whole ‘nother world. Great post. Wonderfully specific. I want some great anecdotes of success and failure in the future blogs on the subject.

    LouiseStaying out of that particular industry after this intro

    Reply
  8. Libby Hellmann

    Wonderful post, Alex! Very illuminating. Especially since I wrote a couple of screenplays a long time ago. I second (or is it third) JT’s question… do you have any suggestions for matching novels with screenplay writers to seek potential options? Also, what do you think about Inktip?

    Reply
  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Everyone should reread Toni’s post for truth.

    Naomi, no, I would say the opposite about considering an option for no money. Almost any option offer you get from an independent filmmaker is going to be for no money, but those are the people who most often have the passion to actually get a film made, and you can set up a contract for WGA money, but deferred payment, under the WGA low budget agreement, which would give you guild protections but give your filmmaker the leeway to get the film made.

    And student filmmakers break through all the time, by placing in festivals and contests, so if you know one you think is talented and want to take the chance, I say go for it. I think that can be much more rewarding than getting paid option money for a book or script to sit on a shelf.

    You live in LA so you have more opportunity both to meet up anc coming filmmakers and to check up on people’s credentials, so I think those are both hugely viable options for you.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Libby is talking about this site here:http://www.inktip.com/

    Honestly, I’ve never heard of anyone breaking in through Inktip. That absolutely doesn’t mean that no one ever has, just that in my several years of serving on the New Member Committee of the WGA and having many discussions about contests and websites on WriterAction, I’ve never heard even anecdotally of anyone making a deal through that site.

    I don’t want to a tease, but let me talk next week about how to get your books to screenwriters.

    Reply
  11. Mike MacLean

    Thanks so much for this Alex. It really opened my eyes.

    To write screenplays for ten years only to see one produced, I can’t imagine how frustrating that would be for an artist like you. At least you know your novel has reached an audience.

    What happens to all the other screenplays you worked on? Do they sit on the studio shelves collecting dust? Is there any hope they’ll see film?

    I understand when you write for a studio they own the material. But can spec scripts be optioned like books are, with rights reverting back to the writer after so much time has passed? Or do the studios always buy scripts outright?

    Hope the questions aren’t too naïve. I’m just now getting my toes wet in the screenwriting world and obviously have much to learn.

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Not naive at all, Mike – those are EXACTLY the questions that you should be asking – before you find yourself and your work sold down the river.

    Actually since I wrote a lot of original scripts, my agent always structured “sales” as option deals – same money, but they’re easier to get back, unless a studio decides to dig in, which they unfortunately do, sometimes.

    Several years agao – after the movie was made, actually, I started getting my scripts back. THE HARROWING was a srript, first. Scripts made great outlines for novels, so yes, I hope I’ll be able to work my way through my scripts. Of course you find that you have other ideas along the way that take precedence, so I don’t know if I’ll get to all of them. But it wasn’t wasted work.

    Other screenwriters I know are in anguish over original projects they can’t get back, though, so your questions are very astute.

    Under the basic WGA contract you do always retain the novel rights to your original scripts (it’s called “separation of rights”) but that often works better in theory than in practice.

    Reply
  13. Josephine Damian

    What a wealth of info you’ve provided for us, Alexandra.

    I was a semi-finalist at the Heart of Austin’s screenwriting conference/competition years and years ago.

    Christopher McQuarie, the young screenwriter who won the Oscar for “The Usual Suspects” was there and gave out some terrific advice: You have to remember, it’s YOUR script, but it’s THEIR movie.

    Of course, it starts out as your script, and if they buy it, they change it.

    I’ve also heard of the “rule of three” in terms of the re-writes you’re contractually bound to do (thanks to Mr. Edison) –

    1/3 of the changes they ask you to make are valid, and respresent an improvement to your original script.

    1/3 of the changes neither hurt or improve the script that much, so you might as well make them.

    1/3 of the changes as total BS, or downright stupid and you can ignore them because you’ve made 2/3rds of the changes they asked for.

    Question: I’ve heard some literary agents are negative on screenwriters-turned- novelists because they tend not to include detailed descriptions, interior thoughts, etc. Have you found that’s the case?

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Pari – I’m hoping for more “blown away” than “want to blow my brains out”.

    Josephine, congratulations on the Heart of Austin score!

    I’d never heard that Rule of Three before, but it’s pretty true – except that unfortunately too often the “1/3 BS notes” are the ones that they insist on, or you’re out.

    I’ve heard other editors say that about the too-sparseness of screenwriters turned novelists, and I know there’s truth in that. On the other hand, for me, I know the pacing, cinematic quality and no-bloat storytelling was what sold THE HARROWING so quickly. But I still have a lot to learn about using the stylistic freedoms of prose to full advantage!

    Reply
  15. Anne Walker

    Great blog post – really informative! I’m moving to LA from NY in three weeks (!) and am looking into part-time and freelance gigs. How does one go about applying for a gig as a story analyst/reader at one of the agencies/studios?

    Thanks again for the great info, Anne.

    Reply
  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Brian! You’ve got a great site there, yourself.

    Congratulations on the move, Anne. You’re going to need to get your resume together, emphasizing jobs that have to do with books and film and writing (library or bookstore work, movie theater or production work, any kind of writing job), and get together some coverage samples.

    I know there are books out there detailing the process of becoming a story analyst that also have coverage samples, but I have not been able to find one on Amazon – yet. I’ve put out a query on Writeraction and will get back to you.

    You need to get yourself a new copy of the Hollywood Creative Directory (hcdonline.com) – that’s where you will find lists of production companies – your potential employers – and current contact information.

    And here are some studio job listing sources that you should be checking for reading jobs:

    http://www.showbizjobs.comwww.showbizdata.comwww.hcdonline.com (go to job board)www.entertainmentcareers.netwww.varietycareers.net

    Reply

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